17 Discovering Australian deep time

As had been the case in the Pacific, when European explorers reached the Australian continent they reached a known, inhabited place. It has taken time for outsiders to come to understand just how long Aboriginal people have lived in what is now Australia, and Australian deep time has become an area of intense interest for Australia’s historians as well as its archaeologists. Dealing with the depth of human engagement with the continent includes investigating the ways in which humans have shaped the Australian continent, grappling with the reality of Australia’s period of settler colonialism, recognising the on-going repercussions of settler colonialism for all members of the modern Australian state, and determining a just path forward. These are difficult projects, unlikely to be resolved quickly.

When European explorers arrived on Australian shores they saw clear evidence of human inhabitation and often encountered Traditional Owners. However, Europeans struggled to engage meaningfully with local people. In the north and west the Dutch and the Englishman William Dampier found their attempts to engage in transactions with local people (by trading European goods for help in obtaining water and food) did not meet with success. Later, James Cook also struggled to engage with the people he met during his voyage along the east coast of the continent. This was despite the presence of Tupaia on board the Endeavour. Tupaia was Tahitian, and while he did not share a language or culture with Indigenous groups in Australia, he was a gifted linguist and diplomat. However, in Australia he was unable to facilitate communication and engagement between Europeans and the local people they encountered. After the settlement at Sydney was established, contact and interaction between Europeans and Aboriginal people increased. European colonisation tended to precede exploration in Australia, and while respect, friendship, and love was present across racial divides, many interactions instead involved violence and misunderstanding as Europeans began to colonise the continent.

Aboriginal stories of the origins of Australia’s people were very different from Polynesians’ accounts of their arrivals on their islands, and settler speculation about Aboriginal origins drew on different theories to those used to explain Polynesian origins. In the Pacific Islanders spoke of their ancestors arriving from other places, and told stories of heroic voyaging; in Australia connection to country extends back to creation. Settler and scientific speculation from the nineteenth century onwards included the possibility that Aboriginal people evolved within the Australian continent, often drawing on then-popular ideas about Australia as an evolutionary backwater with peculiar, unevolved flora and fauna. Other ideas proposed external origins for Aboriginal people, although those ideas recognised that Australia had been peopled for a long time. Both sets of ideas were influenced by racial theories that saw the Australian continent as a refuge for plants, animals, and people that had been superseded elsewhere. In the present, archaeologists and historians exploring Australia’s deep past are working in new ways that seek to respect the depth of connection between Aboriginal groups and their country, and that recognise the sophistication and value of Australia’s traditional cultures.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries archaeologists have located evidence that shows humans were present in Australia 50,000 years ago, and likely even earlier. This represents an extremely long period of human habitation, but the exact time of human arrival on the continent will never be known with certainty. The evidence located by archaeologists can offer insights into Australia’s human past, but changing sea levels and climate mean that much evidence has been destroyed over the millennia. Traditional ownership of country extends through periods that were significantly different in terms of climate and environment, and Aboriginal cultures in present-day Australia draw on an extensive heritage. Those cultures remain dynamic, and while aspects of Australia’s long human history can be told in the present, some can be known only in outline.

Current historical interest in Australian Deep Time is part of a reckoning with Australia’s colonial past. While history examines the past, it is written in the present and deals with the present’s concerns. In Australia, work exploring the long human history of the continent is part of an on-going process working out what it means to be Australian and how to reckon with the histories of frontier warfare, massacre, displacement, child removal, and disadvantage visited on many Aboriginal groups and people. The history wars in Australia have been rolling on for decades, and despite progress in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, matters of sovereignty and reconciliation remain to be resolved. The 1967 referendum that changed the Australian constitution was a popular affirmation but largely symbolic in its outcomes. It indicated a desire within settler Australia to begin resolving the injustices caused by settler colonialism. It was not until 1993 that legislation prompted by the 1992 Mabo Decision formally recognised the existence of native title in Australia. In 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an apology for past government actions that resulted in the removal of Aboriginal children from their families. That apology made reference to Australian Aboriginal cultures as the oldest continuing cultures in human history. From 2021, the wording of the national anthem changed, removing a reference to Australians being ‘young’. The investigation of Australian deep time has ramifications for Australian politics and the recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty, making it a political undertaking as well as intriguing history writing.

In 1901, when the British colonies within Australia federated to form a new state, Cook and other European explorers provided comfortable and heroic founding fathers for the new nation. The explorers themselves tended to engage in a form of double think: both proclaiming the newness of their discoveries and recording the presence and knowledge of the people already inhabiting the areas they were travelling through. As with the Pacific, the records of the explorers of Australia require careful reading to pull apart their layers of observation, interpretation, and assumption. They are part of Australian history, and they indicate the recent arrival of European colonisation in known and peopled country. While historians of Australia grapple with the deep human past of the continent, these records of encounter offer insights into more recent Aboriginal history. Reading them with careful attention to the biases of those producing them allows us glimpses of individual human beings and specific cultural groups within the landscape of Australia, and contributes to the perpetual rewriting of history required by a living and evolving nation.


Maps and collected resources

AIATSIS. Map of Indigenous Australia. Accessed March 31, 2022. https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/map-indigenous-australia

Crabtree, Stefani, Alan N Williams, Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Devin White, Frédérik Saltré, and Sean Ulm. “We Mapped the Super-Highways the First Australians Used to Cross the Ancient Land.” The Conversation, April 30, 2021. https://theconversation.com/we-mapped-the-super-highways-the-first-australians-used-to-cross-the-ancient-land-154263

Ryan, Lyndall, Jennifer Debenham, Bill Pascoe, Robyn Smith, Chris Owen, Jonathan Richards, Stephanie Gilbert, Robert J. Anders, Kaine Usher, Daniel Price, Jack Newley, Mark Brown, Le Hoang  Le, and Hedy Fairbairn. “Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930.” University of Newcastle. Accessed March 22, 2022. https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/map.php

Video material

Open access secondary sources

AIATSIS. “Land Rights.” Accessed March 22, 2022. https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/land-rights

Dorey, Fran. “When did Modern Humans get to Australia?” Australian Museum. Updated December 9,  2021. https://australian.museum/learn/science/human-evolution/the-spread-of-people-to-australia/

Galloway, Kate. “Australian Politics Explainer: The Mabo Decision and Native Title.” The Conversation, April 27, 2017.  https://theconversation.com/australian-politics-explainer-the-mabo-decision-and-native-title-74147

McGrath, Ann, Mary Anne Jebb (eds). Long History, Deep Time: Deepening Histories of Place. Canberra: ANU Press, 2015. http://doi.org/10.22459/LHDT.05.2015

McGregor, Russell. “‘Right Wrongs, Write Yes’: What was the 1967 Referendum All About?” The Conversation, May 26, 2017. https://theconversation.com/right-wrongs-write-yes-what-was-the-1967-referendum-all-about-76512

Porr, Martin, and Ella Vivian-Williams. “The Tragedy of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu.” Australian archaeology 87, no. 3 (2021): 300–304. https://doi-org.elibrary.jcu.edu.au/10.1080/03122417.2021.1991378

Taylor, Beth. “Remembering Eddie Mabo.” Accessed March 22, 2022. https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/remembering-eddie-mabo

Other secondary sources

Griffiths, Billy. Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia. Collingwood: Black Inc, 2018.

Mulvaney, John, Johan Kamminga. The Prehistory of Australia. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.

Pascoe, Bruce. Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture. Perth: Magabala Books, 2018.



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Beyond Cook: Explorers of Australia and the Pacific by Claire Brennan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.